March 2, 2007

Many students see Core Bio writing sections as unnecessary

Biological Issues and Paradigms, or Core Bio, is one of the most frequently taken classes at the U of C. But rather than complaining about overcrowding, many students enrolled in the class complain about the course’s writing requirement, which they claim is an unnecessary addition to other writing-intensive components of the Core Curriculum.

In addition to four hours of lecture and two hours of lab each week, students are required to attend weekly 50-minute discussion sessions that are designed to fulfill the “Writing in the Sciences” requirement of the Core . This requirement, according to Matt Deming, director of the writing program, is intended to teach students the basics of science writing, along with developing research techniques specific to the sciences.

Deming said the purpose of the writing program is not much different from the aims of other writing-intensive courses within the Core.

“All of these [Core] courses work for the same goal; that is, to develop strong analytical writing,” he said.

Jose Quintáns, master of the Biological Sciences division, said, “I believe it is very important in the 21st century for educated citizens to be able to write about science in an analytical and accurate way.”

The requirement is necessary for students going into public service fields where science writing may be required, said Dean of the College John Boyer, adding that more academic writing opportunities enhance a student’s experience at the U of C.

“I hear from alumni all the time that are grateful that the University forced them to do so much writing. They don’t necessarily remember what books they read in Sosc or Hum, but they are able to use the writing skills that they learned at the U of C later in their careers,” Boyer said.

Each year, discussion sections focus on a narrow subset of issues taken from the larger lectures. Writing sections have, for instance, focused on Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in order to understand “the development and presentation of Darwin’s theories of common descent and natural selection and their subsequent influence on the biological sciences and society,” according to one class syllabus.

The material covered and format of these sections have led many students to argue that they are not as distinctive from other Core writing classes as administrators claim.

“We are given weekly assignments where we are required to take a reading and write a response. We are reading a text written in the 19th century and just because it happens to be about science doesn’t really make it any different than writing for Sosc,” said Sarah Staudt, a first-year in the College.

Some students claimed that a lack of feedback on written assignments has made it difficult to improve their science writing skills.

“I feel like I’ve basically been writing the same paper with different facts all quarter, and I’ve been getting the same grades,” said first-year Colin Gaw. “I don’t really feel as though my writing has improved.”

Students and faculty agree that the writing requirement benefits from the teaching assistants who lead the individual discussion sections. Teaching assistants are primarily graduate students from a variety of fields or fourth-year undergraduate biology students.

The biology writing requirement has been a part of the Core since 1998, when it was instituted along with other major changes to the Core Curriculum. The new requirements replaced a system that, according to Boyer, had barely changed since the Core’s inception in the 1930s.

“The old science Core was too passive,” he said. “One way to make learning a more active process was to make writing part of the curriculum. If you don’t have words, you don’t have thoughts.”

The writing sections have also been a way to decrease class size. While a Core Bio lecture section may have nearly 50 students, writing sections are capped at 12.

Students dissatisfied with the writing program have offered suggestions for improvements through course evaluations, which range from the removing science writing from the Core to creating a class dedicated only to science writing.

Despite ongoing changes to the material covered in the course, biology faculty members said there are no plans to dramatically alter the current structure of the class.